Keep Your Eye on the epub Ball (But Do Play Nice)

On Peter Brantley‘s Reading 2.0 email list, former IDPF director Nick Bogaty offered a great argument for dialing down some of the pressure aimed at device makers for not yet fully supporting the .epub ebook standard. Nick has kindly given permission to have his comments reprinted here:

While companies like the one I work for have broadly implemented .epub support in its eBook products (in Adobe’s case in InDesign CS3 for making .epub and Digital Editions for consuming it), I think it is too early to question vendor support for the .epub format. The final piece of the .epub specification (which is really composed of three specs) was only approved in September 2007 and it takes time for big companies to digest the implications of .epub on their businesses, integrate it into their products etc.

When we were making the .epub format when I was at the IDPF, we envisioned that eBook hardware and software would handle .epub in one of two ways. The first way is to simply render (in the case of eBooks that means "read") .epub files natively. Personally this is what I think makes most sense and it is what Adobe thinks makes most sense. You get an .epub file, open it in a piece of software or on an ebook reading device, and you’re reading an .epub book. This scenario uses .epub as a consumer format.

The second way is for software or a device to take an .epub file and automatically convert it to a proprietary format. A publisher creates an .epub file, sends it to a vendor or through a channel that they want to sell, and that vendor or channel builds some sort of automatic conversion of the .epub to a proprietary format. There are many reasons for doing this, and all reasons generally have to do with companies thinking the .epub format doesn’t meet the requirements of their hardware or software. This scenario uses .epub as a distribution format.

Either way, the advantage for publishers is very clear. Until now publishers had to convert to X numbers of formats if they wanted to take advantage of X numbers of channels. This significantly raised costs for publishers and forced publishers to make a strategic decision on what parts of their inventory they wanted to convert to an eBook in order to recoup their investment in conversion. And this had depressing consequences for consumers. Imagine going into a Barnes & Noble store with only 10,000 titles available.

What .epub really gives publishers is leverage. They can say to their vendors and channels, "ok, I’m now only giving you .epub and you better either provide software that reads .epub or provides an automatic conversion from .epub to Y format." This tremendously lowers costs and aggravation for publishers and, I strongly suspect, will increase inventory through the channels quite dramatically. The decision to create an eBook is just so much easier to make. And, if a hot eBook startup (or existing non-compliant eBook device/software) comes along to a publisher and says, "I’ve got this great device or software, give me your books in my format," a publisher can say, "you get .epub if you want my books." I strongly suspect that in the coming months, this above scenario of ".epub only" will start to happen more and more as publishers begin to produce .epub and understand its tremendous benefits to their digital businesses. And, publishers can use this leverage to get their software and ebook device partners to implement .epub a little faster.

While people don’t seem quite in the mood these days to do so, I’d give Amazon (and others) the benefit of the doubt and a little time on .epub. The format is clearly in everyone’s best interest.

[Links and emphasis added]

Nick’s comments are reasoned and rational (not unexpected from someone who’s spent time on both the standards side and the vendor side). And while publishers need to be realistic in their expectations for adoption of such a new standard (here at O’Reilly we’re still working ourselves to efficiently retrofit content for .epub), publishers still need to keep the .epub goal in sight, and make sure that our actions continue progress toward that endpoint. As Nick suggests, saying "ok, I’m now only giving you .epub and you better either provide software that reads .epub or provides an automatic conversion from .epub to Y format" is the right way to go, for publishers and consumers.

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